Acts 16:9-15; John 14:23-29
Good morning! I had a wonderful week of study leave in sunny Minneapolis. No, seriously, the weather was perfect almost every day. It was cold and rainy on the day I left, but every other day was in the 70s and sunny. I think the weather was nicer in Minnesota than in New Jersey that week.
Anyhow, it was a great time of learning and talking; it was a time for study and renewal, and I’m excited to be back in the pulpit. I love to travel, but I also love to sleep in my own bed. The purpose of the study leave is for me to recharge my batteries and get energized. I was fed at the conference, in profound ways. Now it’s time for me to give back; to feed you as I have been feed. I went to the Festival of Homiletics to learn; I came back so I could teach.
Speaking of teaching, today we are going to recognize our Sunday School teachers and all the wonderful work they do on behalf of the young people in this congregation. Our lesson from the Gospel of John is a perfect text for this occasion. It really points to the work that Beth and Judi and Sam and Beth do every Sunday morning.
In this text, Jesus is speaking to the disciples. This story takes place right after the Last Supper and scholars refer to this section of John’s Gospel as the Farewell Discourse. Jesus is giving the disciples one last lesson before he is arrested and crucified. He’s trying to equip them for their life and ministry after the human Jesus has left the world. This is no small task.
In Jesus, the disciples had a direct relationship with God, in the flesh. Through Jesus, God could be known and seen and touched; God is made known to humanity through this physical presence. In the Farewell Discourse, Jesus tells the disciples that he’s about to leave. For good. They don’t know how they’re going to live without his presence in their lives or continue Jesus’ work in the world.
But Jesus tells the disciples is that they will remain in relationship with him, even after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. The relationship will remain—Jesus will abide in each one of them, dwell in each one of them, and they in him, through the Holy Spirit. In Greek, this is called the parakletos or Advocate, who will equip them to continue Jesus’ work in the world. They will do this in the spirit of love and peace, which Jesus has given to each of them.
It seems to me that this is kind of what our Sunday school teachers do. They prepare our young people to be in a relationship with Jesus—even though none of them have ever known the human Jesus. We spend a lot of time planning lessons and reviewing curriculum, and those are all good. Preparation is always a good thing. But what matters most is the love.
This began to dawn on me when I was in seminary. Sometimes I felt like I didn’t know the Bible well enough. It seemed like all of my seminary classmates knew the Bible soooooo much better than I did. Being an only child, I wondered if maybe this was someone else’s fault. I wondered if maybe my Sunday school teachers had dropped the ball somewhere along the way.
If you’re not an only child, then you can probably spot the flaws in my logic. Sunday school teachers can only do so much. Like many young people, I drifted away from church when I went off to college and it took at least ten or twelve years for me to drift back into church. Of course, I forgot a lot of what I learned!
But it didn’t occur to me until I was in seminary that learning about the Bible is only one of several things that goes on in Sunday school. And learning Bible content is hardly the most important thing that happens in Sunday school. No. Teaching God’s love is what’s most important. Our teachers do an excellent job of teaching God’s love.
First and foremost, they do this simply by loving the children they teach. They model the greatest and most important commandments: love God and love one another. This is so much more important than teaching Bible trivia. Our teachers know our young people; they build relationships with them. Through those relationships, they can use Bible stories to explain God’s love for the world and even how to navigate through the troubled waters of our society.
This is so very important because we live in a world that teaches us conditional value. Our world teaches that you are only valuable if you satisfy certain conditions:
· You are valuable for what you do, what you make, what you produce.
· You are valuable for how you look.
· You are valuable for how entertaining or interesting you are.
· You are valuable for what you consume.
· You are valuable to people who make commercials and sell products.
In Sunday school, we teach our young people that they are inherently valuable. We teach them that they are created in God’s image and that they are loved. They are loved by God and by us. That is the exact opposite of what our culture teaches!
When I think of all those negative messages that our culture offers, sometimes I want to withdraw from the world. When I hear stories of people treating other people with cruelty, I want to withdraw from the world. I’m sure that many of you feel this way from time to time, too. But that’s not what Jesus teaches us to do.
Our lesson this morning is from the Gospel of John; the gospel in which Jesus reminds us that God so loved the world that He sent his only begotten Son. This world. This broken and frustrating world. That’s why there’s such a sense of urgency in Jesus’ words this morning.
Jesus knows he’s about to leave the world. Jesus knows that he has to equip the disciples for their work in the world. They have to do this without him, without his physical presence and without his words. Jesus reminds them that they’ll have the Holy Spirit with them as they do this work, but still, they have to go out into the world and do it without Jesus’ calming presence. Jesus equips them with his peace. He says to them: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (14:27).
This is what our Sunday school teachers do for our young people. They model God’s unconditional love and they give them peace. God’s peace. They don’t give as the world gives; rather, they give love, as God gives love, even though they are with our young people for only a short time.
As I was working on this sermon, I remembered a woman who taught Sunday school in the church I attended in high school. Her name was Dolores. I would guess she was in her seventies and she was from a blue-collar family. Dolores was a mixture of stern and warm. She had firm rules. I believe she taught the middle school class.
I never had Dolores as a Sunday school teacher. I knew her because she would also go on the youth group mission trips. She ran the kitchen with an iron fist. I was kind of surprised that she taught middle schoolers. I asked her about it and she said, “I just love the kids.”
As I think of Dolores now, it occurs to me that she probably didn’t get to see all of those kids grow up. She didn’t get to see all of them go to college or into the military. She didn’t get to see them get married and have kids of their own. She never got to know those kids as adults.
She must have known that. Yet it didn’t matter to her. She loved the kids and she loved the church. She gave of herself, her time and her talents. She gave out of love. She gave love. She gave, like so many other Sunday school teachers in so many other churches around the world. She participated in a continuum of care. She was part of a cycle and a process that was so much bigger than herself. She taught generations of young people that they mattered. She taught them that they were loved: by God and by her. Just like Beth and Judi and Sam and Beth.
These are difficult messages to teach—the rest of the world constantly sings another tune. Church is a place where we profess God’s unconditional love. None of us can do this alone. It takes pastors, Sunday school teachers, deacons and elders, and the talents, time, and treasure of an entire congregation to be a beacon of God’s love for the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are an Easter people. We are called to be Christ’s church in the world, the world today. We are called to live in the light of Easter morning! We are called to love one another; to act with justice and mercy; to walk humbly with God. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!